Category Archives: Holidays

Thanksgiving Traditions

What’s on your Thanksgiving menu? In the United States, turkey is traditional. Various sides begin with stuffing (my mother called it dressing) flanked by macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole, and other green or yellow vegetables. Then for dessert, there’s traditional pumpkin or sweet potato pie. Or perhaps, apple or pecan pie. Add a dollop of vanilla ice cream and bring on the hot coffee or tea.

Why do we call these foods traditional? Because they’ve been around a long time. How long? Definitely not the focus of the first Thanksgiving dinner which originated during fall harvest four centuries ago. According to the Smithsonian, venison and wild fowl were the mainstays. Sides aren’t mentioned, but corn seemed to be in abundance. And forget the pies, the Smithsonian says.

What? Pastry has been a favorite since ancient Greeks, and Queen Elizabeth I is credited with baking the first cherry pie. The American Pie Council says pies (first spelled pyes) were a tradition of the first English settlers to the Colonies, but the Smithsonian says they were absent from the Pilgrims’ table in 1621.

My mother, a descendant of French Huguenots who migrated to America to escape religious persecution, made her pie crusts with lard. She favored mincemeat, pumpkin, and apple fillings but made a variety depending on the tastes of who would be coming to dinner.

Dinner. The Pilgrims celebrated for three days, but dinner was at our house was at high noon in California, USA. Papa settled himself at the table laden with food, and lifted his watch, the chain firmly attached to his pocket, five minutes early. Perhaps he and Mama had a hidden signal, or perhaps from years of this tradition, she immediately called everyone to the dining room. The adults sat at the table—all but Mama. She stood behind the chairs with the children. At precisely twelve, Pacific Standard Time, Papa slid his watch back into his pocket and said the blessing over the food. After the Amen, mothers filled plates for their children to take to the kitchen table. Teens carried plates heaped with food to the living room or front porch, depending on the weather. Mama hustled back and forth to the kitchen refilling serving bowls with food. By the time she sat at the table with her children and their spouses, they were ready for dessert. Off she went again, carrying slices of pie to those who sat while she served.

After dinner, the women washed and dried the dishes and swept crumbs from the linoleum floors. Some of my brothers and my sisters’ husbands went outside to smoke—another of Papa’s house rules. Long before cell phones and video games, Thanksgiving was a day of food and conversation for adults, games for the kids. Lots of laughter. No TV—we couldn’t afford one—so the crowd thinned in late afternoon to go home and watch football in black and white.

That evening, long before home microwaves, Mama warmed leftovers on the kitchen stove. When the dishes were done, she boiled water, made herself a cup of tea, and rested.

 

 

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Truce

A signed armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 signaled the end of World War I. The first Armistice Day celebration was November 11,  1919. My parents had two children then. World War II ended September 2, 1945. At the end of WWII, my parents had nine children, ages six to thirty-one, and grandchildren ages up to age seven. Several of those grandsons later served in the Korean Conflict and Viet Nam.

We honored all the dead in our family—military and civilian—on Memorial Day and the living military men on Veterans Day. My mother called the May holiday Decoration Day and the November holiday Armistice Day. We spent the May morning at the Chowchilla Cemetery placing flowers on any veteran’s grave. After my father died in November 1953, my mother insisted that we adorn his grave with flowers on Armistice Day although he was a civilian during all the wars. She said, “It might look bad if his grave was bare on that day so many neighbors visited the cemetery.”

The red poppy became symbolic for Veterans Day, but my mother, a widow, seldom had a spare quarter to donate in exchange for the handmade paper flower. One year, the veteran accepted a dime and handed her a red paper poppy. She pinned it to the right side of her dress. When my brother-in-law, a WWII veteran, saw it, he insisted she move it over her heart. To keep the peace, a truce of sorts, she wore it there until he left. Then, she moved it back to the right side.

“What’d you do that for, Grandma?” one of the grandsons born during World War II asked. “The vets pin their poppies on the left.”

“That’s why I moved it,” she said, her black brows drawn together. “They’re men, but I’m a woman.”

 

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Salute to President Abraham Lincoln

I have posted the same humorous tale on several Presidents’ Day blogs. Today, I omit the dual focus of George Washington and salute President Abraham Lincoln.

I toured the 2009 Library of Congress Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition, With Malice Toward None, in Sacramento, California. My steps through multi-level floors of exhibits echoed like a true walk through history. The artifacts included Lincoln’s inaugural Bible, a lithograph of the Emancipation Proclamation, a scrapbook of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate, and Lincoln’s handwritten Farewell Address. As stated in the California Museum tour booklet, “By placing Lincoln’s words in a historical context . . . the exhibition provides a deeper understanding of how remarkable Lincoln’s decisions were for their time and why his words continue to resonate today.”

Mr. Lincoln would be rejected as a political party candidate today.  He would be considered undereducated (not enough diplomas on his attorney’s office wall) and not attractive enough for TV appearances. In his day, he seldom—if ever—appeared in public without his layers of formal attire of a waistcoat (vest) over a white shirt and black bowtie beneath a wool frock coat. He would not have stepped outside without his black silk top hat. I suspect his shoes were shined—maybe by his own hand—but surely not by an enslaved servant. Today he would be expected to ditch his favorite attire for something informal—perhaps coatless with rolled-up sleeves similar to the Rosie the Riveter poster during World War II.

Lincoln’s words were delivered with a sharp punch that bested his nineteenth-century adversaries. Now, following each speech, treasured statements of history would be ripped apart by news analysts trying to discover his true meaning. Others would second-guess his motives hidden in the sarcastic humor meant to disarm his opponent. A third team would be at work lining up prominent political endorsements in case Lincoln might be the first choice of the Republican party.

One thing that would make Lincoln stand tall today, even if hatless, would be his historical comebacks in his word-sparing with opponents coupled with his common-sense statements in office. As the agony from the weight of the Civil War fell upon him, he declared “If there is a place worse than hell, I am in it.”

I treasure my copy of Abraham Lincoln: Mystic Chords of Memory, a Selection from Lincoln’s Writings. This 79-page softcover book published in 1984 is filled with lengthy quotes from Lincoln’s writings that give me insight into the turmoil he faced. But I seldom read the pages of lengthy quotes. Lincoln’s greater resonance is from his commonsense statements seldom mentioned. One simple quote from The Lincoln Treasury rings true today as it did when spoken.

Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.

The same applies to blogs. I wish I had known Abraham Lincoln as my foster child suggested in my 2015 Presidents’ Day post.

 

 

 

 

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Special Assignment

This is a true story of a defining moment in my life from my book, In the Right Place: A Gallery of Treasured Moments (Carr Twins & Co. 2006). This revision is as fitting today, January 15, 2018, as the nation observes the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, as it was when first published.

The scene: Proof machines clatter and a check sorter hums with activity outside the manager’s door in a bank Operations Center. A West Coast transplant to the Deep South is being briefed on her new assignment, a dark secret that is about to change this workplace forever.

 

“James wants to see you in his office when you finish that batch of deposits,” my supervisor said.  Except for annual performance reviews, a summons to his office was rare and seldom good news.

“I asked you here to give you a special assignment,” James said. “Because of your California background, you are the most likely person for this job. “You are used to working with different people,” he said, emphasizing different. “We want you to train Mary, our newest employee.”

Because of my previous experience and my accuracy and speed, I had been training employees since shortly after being employed by this bank. What could be so special about training another new employee?

James, who was usually quite fluent, was hesitant as he explained that the federal government was intruding where it had no right and telling our bank how to run its business. President Lyndon Johnson had signed something called a civil rights bill, so we were being forced to hire our first Negro employee. His southern drawl emphasized negro as though his lips were unfamiliar with the word. Management had decided to place Mary in the Operations Department to shield her from public contact.

I reminded James that Mary would be our second black staff member. The main office employed an African-American porter who made coffee and cleaned the kitchen. “That’s different,” he said with no further explanation.

I was embarrassed by the way the employees treated Mary on her first work day when I introduced her to each of them. I thought time would make a difference. How wrong I was! They moved their coffee cups to their workstations. At break time, Mary and I went alone. The others worked during my assigned lunch period, leaving me alone with Mary every day.  Afternoon break was no different.  When Mary was in the kitchen, they stayed out. When they entered as we left, they scrubbed the tables and wiped the chairs before being seated. None of the ladies entered the restroom for weeks after Mary arrived.  Only my direct supervisor and the manager spoke to me unless absolutely necessary for workflow.  After many weeks of this routine, it was clear that I, along with Mary, had been ostracized for exposing the staff to a new and uncomfortable experience.

I was appalled at the southern traditions that denied minorities access to restaurants and forced them to sit in back seats on public buses. I disapproved of segregated schools and churches. Although I felt strongly about these disgraces, I disapproved of ineffective—and dangerous—protest marches and sit-ins. By accepting a special assignment that others refused, I made enemies, but I left a mark in history. No holiday will be named for me. My statue will never stand in a public place. But by giving hope to one person during the civil rights movement, I changed the future of a corporate entity.

 

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New Year’s Superstitions

Our family celebrated religious holidays like Easter and Christmas and Thanksgiving Day, the day of gratitude, with abundant meals—except for the year we picked cotton on Thanksgiving (see my blog post  https://violetsvibes.wordpress.com/2017/11/23/thanksgiving-memories). Even with this strong dedication to faith and family, my mother harbored a few superstitions. She made us turn around if a black cat crossed our path while walking. A broken mirror brought seven years of bad luck. Visitors had to exit our house through the same door they entered to keep life on an even keel.

New Year’s Day, the first holiday of the year, began as usual. Mama woke us early even though there was no school. Then she made a hearty breakfast of fried eggs from the backyard chickens and homemade biscuits with butter and jelly. Thick slices cut from a slab of bacon filled a small platter in prosperous times. All routine until the breakfast dishes were washed, dried, and put away. Then superstition blew in like a gust of chilling wind on a winter morning.

“Be careful what you do today because you’ll do the same thing all year,” Mama said. That sounded great to me. My father guffawed and went about his daily chores like any nonworking day.

I wanted to read—my favorite pastime—but Mama insisted we do something productive—to “ward off laziness,” she said. Then she set about finding ways to bring a year of prosperity to us. She cooked black eye peas with ham hock or bits of bacon—a southern tradition for good luck. We’d been eating that main dish accompanied by cornbread and home-churned butter as far back as I could remember. It hadn’t brought us any luck that I could see.

She cooked greens because superstition emphasized a healthy year by eating that food on the first day. Nothing new there either. She’d served cooked mustard greens, collards, or poke salad for more years than I’d seen. I hated greens. I only ate the small amounts required by my father who insisted we “eat what was set before us.”

Most evenings after supper, Mama swept the linoleum floors in the kitchen, then the pathway across the dining room to the back door. She propped the screen door open with one foot while she swept the wooden threshold and the steps. Not on New Year’s Day. After supper, she swept the kitchen floor and emptied the dustpan in the trash. She stopped there. I thought it was to minimize her workload. Only later did I realize that she might have been clinging to the superstition of not sweeping out good things with the bad on the first day of the year.

I don’t follow Mama’s New Year’s superstitions. Well, maybe one. I’ll leave the broom in the closet today so I don’t sweep out the good with the bad from 2017.

 

 

 

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Thanksgiving Memories

My mother always began preparations on Wednesday for our abundant home-cooked Thanksgiving feast with the main dish of turkey, ham, chicken, duck, or goose–sometimes more than one. Deviled eggs, black olives, pickles and cranberry sauce nestled among bowls brimming with homemade dressing, mashed potatoes or potato salad, and green beans. Mincemeat, apple, and sweet potato pies covered the kitchen counter. Occasionally, a fresh coconut cake towered over the pies, giving it bragging rights. Mama made room for other side dishes brought by my married siblings just before noon. Papa was serious about the precise time. We ate at noon by his pocket watch—not one minute earlier or later.

The adults sat with Papa around the food-laden table in the dining room. Mama seated the younger children at the square drop-leaf table in the kitchen. I ate in the living room with my twin sister and nieces and nephews our age, balancing our plates on our knees. Mama served everyone first and ate later. After lunch, the women washed and dried dishes. Children played on the covered porch. Men gathered in the tiny living room to talk. A couple of my brothers drifted outside for an afternoon smoke, forbidden inside our home.

The night before Thanksgiving, the smell of chicken frying in a cast-iron skillet wafted from the kitchen. The sweet smell of fried apple turnovers replaced the aroma of baking pies. I listened from the open doorway as my parents talked about working on Thanksgiving Day.

Oh, no! It can’t be! 

The next morning after breakfast, Mama packed the refrigerated chicken and turnovers in a sturdy cardboard box with eating utensils. She covered it with a tablecloth just as Frank, my oldest brother, arrived to take us to work.

I stepped down from the old Model A Ford running board. On the ground, I pulled the strap of my cotton sack over my head and under my left arm and shook eight feet of canvas between two rows of late-blooming white cotton basking in the early morning sun.

Five minutes before twelve, Mama stopped picking and spread the tablecloth on a patch of flat ground. Papa removed his hat, wiped his perspiring forehead with a handkerchief and checked his pocket watch. At noon he nodded to Frank to say a blessing for the food.

“Thank you, Lord, for family gathered here on this Thanksgiving Day. Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies so we can finish this field before dark. Bless the farmer who allowed us to work today. Prosper him abundantly for his kindness. Amen.”

Bless the farmer? Without him we’d be home heaping our plates with turkey and dressing and eyeing the tantalizing desserts, not eating cold fried chicken in a cotton field. My complaining thoughts were interrupted by my nephew’s voice.

“Please pass another piece of Grandma’s fried chicken,” he said. “It’s the best I ever ate. And, could you hand me a couple more fried apple pies. Grandma knows how to make them just right.”

The next year, the Wednesday cooking rituals returned to our home. About thirty of us gathered around the dining room at five minutes before twelve. My father checked his pocket watch. At precisely noon, he bowed his head and gave thanks for the abundant meal. While children waited for their plates to be filled before moving to the kitchen to eat, adult talk turned to the previous Thanksgiving meal in the cotton field. One of my brothers mentioned Frank’s prayer.

“No more picking cotton for that farmer. He did so well after that prayer, he bought a cotton-picking machine and put all of us out of work.”

 

 

Posted at 12 noon, Pacific Standard Time, Thanksgiving Day, in honor of my father’s pocket watch time.

Disclosure: Revised third annual post, my Thanksgiving tradition, adapted from my original story in Double Take (Carr Twins & Co., 2014).

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July 4 Celebration

My mother was afraid of deep water, a fear she transmitted to me early on. In spite of that, my married siblings insisted on celebrating Independence Day fishing from the banks of the San Joaquin River or picnicking beside a clear stream in the foothills. It was a break for adults to escape a mundane workday and for kids to have fun splashing in the water. Mama kept a watchful eye on me. If I ventured into water above my knees, she waded beside me and kept a firm grip on the back of my clothes. All that changed on July 4, 1954.

That morning, we dressed in our finest, buckled our polished shoes, and walked to church. My brother, Frank, and his family were there when we arrived. His youngest son, James Henry, sat in a far corner, arms folded across his chest, head down.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked Homer, his teen brother.

“He wanted to go to the river today, but Dad made us come to church.”

“Same for us,” I said. “Church comes first on Sundays. James should know that.”

“We always go to the river on his birthday, so coming to church today was bad enough. Then things got worse.” Homer looked toward James. “He’s nine today and he just found out that all this time we’ve been celebrating Independence Day on July 4, not his birthday.”

 

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